Blood dripped down my chin as I craned my neck to see if anyone was approaching, keeping myself low in case they were still waiting to shoot. Any ideas I had about hotwiring Yaron’s car were forgotten as I saw the engine hood riddled with holes, despite the thing being armored. It wouldn’t start.
In my line of sight were about thirty men, ten with machine guns and the rest armed with various weapons. Several had machetes coated with blood. A few had Santa Muerte emblems, members of the small but growing death cult in the city. The cult the drug dealers in particular prayed to while sacrificing for their skeletal deity. Human sacrifice, that is.
What’d once started as a folk saint prayed to for protection had now morphed into something far more sinister.
Great. This had just turned from a land battle to a spiritual one for the city. Those who worshipped death itself usually were cavalier with the lives of those still living… and to save their own necks from the grave, no less.
Not good. This wasn’t the first battle they’d had this evening, judging by the blood on their bodies. And none of it was theirs.
While most weren’t openly garbed in military or police clothes, I got the distinct feeling they were experienced fighters. Maybe even gang members from the lower end of the city.
“Oh, Miss Anna?” one called from the very center, prowling along like he owned the place. As his eyes roved around, I determined that he was the leader of the group. One could practically smell his ego it was so large, the men keeping careful guard over him. “We know you’re here…”
His voice promised lethal malice. Hiding wouldn’t save me for long. Any attempt to escape with my injured ankle wouldn’t be fast enough. Better to try and ingratiate myself with whomever they were first before making a last ditch run for it.
So as not to appear afraid I stood in one fluid motion, keeping my weapon visible though not aimed at them. As they spotted me, they didn’t outright fire. That was a good sign at least. Barely.
The leader grinned upon seeing me, his dark features visible in the dawn’s low light. He extended his hands toward me mockingly. “There she is. The supposed bait; the Lynx’s squeeze. Too bad they caught the wrong fish. Or should we be considered sharks?”
Either he was unhinged or overly brash. None of them had the polished look of the local drug cartel’s men. There were no clues about where their allegiances lay. Or if they had any, other than the apparent death goddess. “Who are you?”
A few chuckled as if amused by the question. The leader rolled his eyes. “Honey, I’d be askin’ what I want, not who I am. But your curiosity is touching. I admire your spunk, getting that bastard at gunpoint. Real sexy.”
Oh, yeah. Real big ego. Huge.
As he approached, he put his foot on top of Haynesworth’s chest and pressed down. Haynesworth groaned with a pained gasp, too wounded to escape him.
“Are you the leader of the Forge?” I asked, standing my ground. Though I wanted to stop him from hurting Ryan, I didn’t dare intervene.
The man ignored me, pressing down harder on Ryan’s chest to the point I heard him wheeze. “So sweet of you all to tell us where you’d be. Did you really think the Lynx was the only one tuning in to your police scanners? Huh?!” As Ryan refused to talk, he stomped down on him harder. “Half of the Forge are cops under your command, you dirty scum!”
Unhinged, not brash. Rather than shoot Ryan, he was just tormenting him. Then his focus shifted to me, his gaze sharp. “So what to do with you… the princess to the dictatorial throne…”
“I want nothing to do with any of this. I’ve been held under threat of death for years,” I replied, relieved as I saw him loosen the pressure on Ryan. The rest of the men remained crowded around behind him, clearly awaiting orders. Orders to do me in, judging by the anticipatory looks.
“Yes, supposedly you’re with the Lynx. I don’t like superhero wannabes in my city,” he sneered, sinking any hopes I had of walking away easily. “Or loose ends. I’ve got no use for you since Daddy Dearest already croaked.”
My mind whirled, taking in all the escape routes that I could use. I saw only two. “Don’t be so sure…”
As he approached me, I made no move to stop him and instead challenged him head on with my glare. He touched my cheek with dirty, blood-covered fingers. “You’re not my type, sweetheart.”
“I meant with my sway over people,” I snapped, grossed out beyond measure by the way he took my statement. While I was desperate to stay alive, I wouldn’t stoop that low. “I have connections.“
“I don’t need you,” he crooned to me, getting a bang out of toying with me.
“Then I disappear,” I said, mapping out my plan in the back of my mind. “You can have the city. Take it.”
He jerked his head and one of his men yanked the machine gun up in my direction. Mr. Personality stepped back, shooting me another smirk. “You bet you’ll disappear. But nice try. Points for that, toots.”
“We bring her to Fatan, Dracin,” one of the men among the crowd said, taking a step forward and addressing the leader. Unlike the others, he had a bulletproof vest and stood differently from the crowd. “I have orders.”
I couldn’t help but violently jump as Dracin jerked his head in a signal, thinking it was the signal to shoot me. Instead a man from the crowd behind the vested guy responded, raising his machete. I looked away, unwilling to see the vested man’s gruesome death.
I heard it though, hearing him cry out before the crack of his skull sounded. Blood ran through the already crimson puddles of the yard, pooling by my shoes.
Dracin never even so much as flinched, completely unaffected by the death behind him. Instead, he toyed with a lock of my hair, apparently enjoying my horrified reaction as he only watched me more intently. “Yes, Fatan may want you but I know better than that. If he gets you, he gets control of the city. And it’s mine.”
A glimmer of madness shone in his eyes, lust for power giving rise to an internal insanity. One that demanded I immediately die.
He stepped back and jerked his head; the same gesture that signaled the other man’s demise. I didn’t give a damn who this Fatan was that everyone but me seemed to know about. I knew my course. My escape route behind the next row of compacted cars was iffy at best, but it was my only shot. I was as good as dead if I didn’t move fast.
My salvation was unexpectedly found, however, as all the lights in the yard abruptly blacked out. Everything went eerily dark, all of us hidden in the shadows of a stack of cars.
Dracin’s attention shifted from me. “What the hell-?!”
Not caring how or why the lights had gone out, I bolted while they were distracted. I didn’t care if I cracked the fracture in my ankle further, providing I got away and could keep on running. While it was shrieking at me with painful protest, I kept pushing myself faster.
A few bullets pinged off metal behind me, the men having turned too late to stop me. “Stop her!”
Weaving in and out of the various rows of cars in the darkness, I kept heading for the sound of the rushing river. If I could get to it, I’d swim for higher ground. Either that or dive under the water to avoid the bullets. The current wasn’t strong.
Disorientation in the dark was prevalent as I tried to find my way through the rows of crunched cars. The lines weren’t straight or organized and I slammed into a few, the way unclear. Voices were coming closer, so I knew they were gaining on me despite the unknown terrain.
Lashing out as I was grabbed from the side while rounding a vehicle corner, I fought savagely. Stomping down on the foot of whomever held me and attempting to round on them, I yanked the gun up to shoot. My panic was blinding; cracking my composure. But as I heard a familiar voice hiss in my ear, I froze.
“Stop it! It’s me!” Alvin’s terrified voice sounded, hauling me in the opposite direction from where I’d been sprinting. His hand wrapped around my wrist, pulling me along. “Come on!”
Not sure where he’d come from or why he was even here, I blindly trusted him. “Alvin?”
“Heard them on the radio – saying they had you – then the Forge – where’s Kit?!” he spat out in a consecutive blur, panting as we ran. With considerably longer legs than mine, he was practically dragging me behind him. It was like trying to keep up with a gazelle.
“Hospital,” I responded, hearing an unknown booming noise coming closer as more of the men gained on us.
I nearly stumbled and fell as a row of cars crashed down, knocked over from behind. The top car rolled and landed with a thunderous bang where I’d been a split second earlier, showering us with shattered glass. Seeing some kind of small crane being used to push them over, my stomach bottomed out.
With that new danger in mind (that being, flattened before they could shoot us), I knew for certain that we were screwed. If they could knock down more rows, we’d never escape. Either it’d cut us off from escape or crush us.
“Damn! We need to hide until the others can get here,” Alvin said, dragging me out of the last row. “I can’t shoot for shit and – there!”
He pulled me down, scuttling under a truck that hadn’t been crushed yet. It was just low enough to the ground that it could hide us. The timing was spectacular, too, considering all the lights to the yard flashed on once more. Brilliant white light made me blink. They must’ve broken into the control office. All the lights were on, more than before. We’d be visible if we tried to run any further.
We lay flat to the ground on our stomachs. Seeing Alvin now in the light, the terror was plain in his eyes. While coming for me had been brave, I very much doubted solely defending me from this group had been his intention. His bottom half was clad in pajama bottoms like he’d rolled out of bed to come after me.
“I don’t care where she went!” Dracin was heard bellowing at his men from a distance away, throwing a temper tantrum somewhere beyond the nearest staggered row of cars. “Find her!”
“Dammit,” Alvin muttered, fishing around in his pocket and pulling out a cell phone to send a text. “Come on, Gata! Where are you?”
“You came alone?” I asked, dreading the answer. If so, he’d likely doomed himself to save me.
“Others are on their way,” he huffed out in a hoarse whisper, stowing the phone away and looking out for any sign of danger. His eyes flashed over me. “Kit’s the one who’s used to getting shot at, so I’m next to useless in a fight. If we can get to the entrance, I have a motor scooter to escape on but…”
“We’ll never get out that way,” I muttered, knowing the entrance would now be guarded. “Any other ideas?”
“Damn Dracin for this!” he cursed, peering out behind us. “No reason for any of it! He’s got the city. What more could he want?!”
I shushed him as I saw a set of boots approach around the next corner of cars. Three more sets came up, skirting around the edge of the car. I didn’t dare breathe, keeping my gun ready in case they checked where we were hiding below.
As they headed past and disappeared, Alvin let out a low moan and cursed, putting his head on the pavement.
“Where’s the scooter?” I whispered, far from assured by their passing. “If the way to it is blocked, there’s the river-“
I screeched out as I was abruptly dragged out from behind by my feet. Once out from beneath the vehicle, I shot the man who’d snatched me, seeing two others next to him. Before they could shoot, I’d downed them as well. They fell with shouts, dead before they hit the ground.
Throwing the gun aside since the cartridge was now empty, I snatched up the fallen men’s guns and handed one to Alvin. He just stared at me as he emerged, clearly not having expected me to gun them down with such ease. Or without remorse.
While I’d feel guilty later, adrenaline was running high now and I needed to thrive on a killer instinct. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be the only one dying now. And I very much doubted Alvin had a killing bone in his body. Especially considering he looked at the weapon in his hands like a venomous snake.
“Get to the river,” I ordered, helping him up and knowing that the others would now know where to start looking for us. The previous gunshots were a dead giveaway.
We sprinted for the water, skirting around the remaining crushed cars. Alvin remained by my side to protect me despite the fact he was faster on his feet. Hearing shouts coming from behind us, I knew they were gaining on us again.
“Go,” I huffed out, urging him to save himself. “I’ll follow-“
As I skittered to a halt, seeing a man appear in our way right before the edge of the dock, I felt a new kind of dread. This one didn’t have a gun. He instead wielded a blade; the blood encrusted machete that’d brought down the man before.
Without time to fire, I jumped aside just as he swung at me.
Seizing the initiative, Alvin dove for a discarded metal rod at our feet and swung it in defense, but lacked the muscle strength to follow through. The man caught the rod and thrust it away, tossing Alvin’s strike aside. Alvin fell to the ground, unbalanced by having thrown all his weight behind the blow.
Aiming the gun at the man before he could land a blow on Alvin, I demanded, “Stop. Let us pass or I shoot.”
Seeing the pistol aimed squarely at his head, he lowered his machete slightly. Alvin scuttled back, edging out of the machete’s reach. But as I moved to step forward, I was distracted from the side.
“Aiyla, look out!”
As I half-glanced in the direction Ryan’s warning shout had come from, I was confused to see him standing with Dracin and all his men. Despite the fact Ryan was bleeding from the gut and shoulder wounds that they’d inflicted, he was standing with them freely.
In that one instant as my focus wavered, I realized a beat too late what Ryan had done. My adversary took full advantage of the diversion.
Out of the corner of my eye, I barely spotted the machete whistling toward my face. While I attempted to twist out of the way and dodge the blow, my move wasn’t fast enough.
Alvin’s scream drowned out my own as the edge of the blade slashed down my body, slicing me from my forehead down to my hip. Mind shattering pain ran through me as I staggered back, clutching at my chest and head.
While the blow had been glancing compared to a fatal, crushing strike, it’d been enough to rip directly through my right eye to my chin and then down my shoulder to the hip. Blood ran through my fingers as I bit back another scream, the agony consuming me. The liquid pooled over my hands, splashing to the ground.
A cry somewhere between a gasp and guttural yell escaped me as I reeled, trying to hold the pieces of my broken body together.
“No!” Alvin screamed out again an instant too late, the terrible sound echoing around as he got to his knees to come to my side. “You bastards!”
“Nice work, Haynesworth,” Dracin said appreciatively from where they stood, numb to my suffering. He clapped him on the back. “Consider yourself hired.”
Through the pain, I realized with the sting of bitter betrayal that Ryan had sold me out to save himself. He’d deliberately distracted me so that I could be struck down, proving his loyalty to his new master.
“Run, Alvin,” I croaked, the sound slurring over my ruined mouth. The right corner of my lips was slashed, blood filling my mouth and choking my throat. Alvin hesitated, looking between me and the group of men, unwilling to leave me.
With my one good eye, I saw Dracin nudge Ryan and gesture at me as if my demise was wholesome entertainment. “Now finish the job.”
I stumbled back again onto the dock, losing the feeling in my knees as my blood quickly drained from me. I put a hand up on reflex, the gesture begging for silent mercy.
Ryan looked at me, regret in his eyes. But not enough remorse to stop him as he aimed. His hand shook, the firing hand injured and bloody. “It’s not personal…”
There was no worse kind of lie than that. Maybe in some way he thought he was sparing me, but I’d never see it that way. Never. Holding someone’s life in your hands was as personal as it could get. Especially as you decided your life was more valuable than theirs and sold their soul for your own fate.
As I took another faltering step behind me, my foot caught on a nail in the wood of the dock. I staggered back to regain my balance and found that I’d reached the end of the pier.
Weightlessness held me in a timeless state as I free fell before plunging into the water. The river hadn’t gotten rain recently, so the tide was low. Sinking down, my lungs burned as I realized I hadn’t taken in a breath. Before I’d bleed out, I’d drown. All my wounds burned from the contaminated water, adding to the already excruciating pain.
Kicking out didn’t work as my body failed me. I broke the surface with a start, unable to see. Trying to find the edge of the pier with my hands, I found it to be smooth metal. Pilings surrounded the shore, making it impossible to climb. There was nothing to grab to keep myself above water. Nothing to pull myself upward with.
I slid back down, too weak to stay afloat.
All I heard as I sank under were further gunshots and yells of alarm. The only thing I could do was pray to God that Alvin could escape. He should live.
Rapidly losing consciousness, I knew there was nothing left to fight. There was no way out.
While the concept was cliché to the very last, my whole life flashed before my eyes. A feeling of complete uselessness enveloped me.
Every passing moment I’d ever lived for felt encapsulatingly worthless, having stood for nothing despite my best efforts. I’d made no impact anywhere, knowing only that lives had been destroyed in my name. Even Kit’s love wasn’t enough to dull the bitter ache.
Everything I’d ever set out to accomplish was awash with failure. If there was someone waiting in the afterlife for me, they’d hate me for having my wasted life on barely living. I hated myself for it, too.
All I could hope for was that those I cared about would find some way to live. That they would not be on the other side, there to greet me as I failed.
With no hope for my own survival, my consciousness flickered out. But not before leaving behind a passing wish that I could’ve done better – more – in life. Perhaps I could be better in death. That was the only solace left in the fading of my discarded soul.
Make sure to tune in next Friday for chapter sixteen! I can assure you this isn’t the end.
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– Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel